Today is the birthday of the great Max Reinhardt (1873-1943). A towering giant of 20th century theatre, Reinhardt directed in Berlin and Vienna from 1902 through 1933, when the Nazis made the production of art impossible and he was forced to emigrate. His Broadway work included the original 1938 production of Thornton Wilder’s The Merchant of Yonkers (later retitled The Matchmaker and even later turned into the musical Hello, Dolly!)
For the most part, like most theatrical figures of the past, we must content ourselves to appreciate his reputed genius at second hand, by reading about his productions and looking at photographs. Yet he did make a few films. Most are German and silent and not well known in the United States. But on one memorable occasion he got a shot at bringing his aesthetic vision to Hollywood, with mixed but promising results.
In 1935 he co-directed a version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with William Dieterle for Warner Brothers (Reinhardt overseeing the production design and actors, Dieterle overseeing the camera and other technical aspects). The film was based on a theatrical production Reinhardt had mounted in Los Angeles a few months earlier. The product is as strange an animal as…well, a man with a donkey head. It’s unspeakably gorgeous to look at — true visual art. I first saw the film when I was 19 or 20 and the imagery has never left me. But it has one of those cockamamie all-star Hollywood casts, ranging from the trained…to the appropriate…to just plain badly fitting shoes. Dick Powell was genuinely unhappy about playing Lysander and he looks it. He was a terrific movie actor and is aptly cast as a young lover but he had no gift for high flown Elizabethan poetry — maybe if they had set it to music? Olivia de Havilland was more fortunately cast as Hermia. This was actually her first film role, which she he had gotten because she had understudied Hermia in the stage production and the original actress bowed out. Talk about a big break! She was quickly signed to a Warner Brothers contract; two other films she made ended up being released to the public before this one.
The Rude Mechanicals are James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Hugh Herbert, and others. Brown would have made a much funnier Bottom than Cagney. Again, Cagney was a great actor but here he was both out of his element with the language AND miscast. Whereas Brown would have at least been appropriate as a fool. (I’m not sure what Shakespeare part I’d ever give Cagney. Maybe Benvolio or Mercutio in R&J?) Anyway, he is game and occasionally funny, if awkward, here. As for the fairies, we have Anita Louise as Titania, Victor Jory (Jonas Wilkerson in Gone with the Wind ) as Oberon, Mickey Rooney as Puck and Billy Barty as Mustard Seed. Sadly, of all the performances in the film, Rooney’s ends up being most memorable, and that is because it is characteristically obnoxious.
The film didn’t do well at the box office, so Reinhardt went back to theatre directing. But to me, a film like this goes into that category (along with Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter and everything by Orson Welles) of what Hollywood COULD be or might have been, if it were occasionally remembered that film were an art as well as a business, and we have a responsibility in this life to the former as well as the latter.